Blog by Bill Luyties (OWOE Founder and Editor): I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit the Floating Wind Solutions (FWS) 2023 conference in Houston, Tx, last week and thoroughly enjoyed the three days of exhibits, presentations, networking, and reconnecting with colleagues. This was the third annual FWS and by far the largest and best attended with close to 90 exhibitors and approximately 800 attendees. The mood of the participants was very upbeat, as floating wind has experienced a number of positive developments over the last year. While there are still key hurdles to overcome, the industry appears to be on the verge of taking off.
Exhibitors included quite a few vendors offering products ranging from fabricated steel components to buoyancy modules for submerged cables to cables and slings, service providers including seafloor imaging, offshore installation, engineering and platform certification, technical societies, and platform concept developers. Two of the exhibitor booths stood out for me. 1) The Huisman booth that included a model of their new concept turbine installation vessel (see Fig. 1). This was a very sophisticated vessel that could transport turbines and assemble and install them offshore using a fully automated, rotating, and heave compensated crane. 2) The VL Offshore (VLO) / University of Texas Dallas (UTD) booth that included a scale model of their concept MARS (Modular Assembly and Reconfigurable System) platform, applicable for semi-submersible and TLP configurations, that was developed to address the lack of large fabrication yards and the option of a floating Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) concept platform (see Fig. 2). (See disclaimer, below.)
The three primary messages I took away from the conference were:
- From a technology standpoint the industry is ready to move rapidly into the commercialization phase. At this time there are 4 floating windfarms in commercial operations (Equinor’s Hywind Scotland and Hywind Tampen; Principle Power’s Kincardine Offshore Wind Farm and Windfloat Atlantic). In addition, there are several floating technology demonstrators in Europe and the world’s largest floating turbine of 18 MW offshore China. And then there are over 80 other floating platform concepts that are in various stages of development, with over of 60 of them already certified by DnV.
- From a government standpoint the industry has broad support, particularly in the European Union where most of the development has taken place to date, but now also in the United States where the Inflation Reduction Act contains significant provisions to boost domestic offshore wind development and where many state governments are aggressively pushing offshore wind developments. Of particular interest among the conference attendees was the recently held offshore lease sale in California, where floating platforms will be necessary due to water depth.
- From an execution standpoint the industry is faced with substantial obstacles. Each wind farm under consideration for development will require tens to hundreds of platforms. The infrastructure to deliver this many platforms does not yet exist, including manufacturing capacity, fabrication yards, ports, and installation vessels. In addition, the financial markets do not yet understand the development risks and are not prepared to commit the funds needed.
I find floating wind a very intriguing and challenging amalgam of the offshore oil and gas industry and onshore wind industry. Oil and gas developed the basic concepts for floating platforms, mooring and offshore installation in the 1980s and continued to refine those well into this century. All of those components are key parts of a floating wind development. Similarly, the turbines themselves have evolved from the small machines used for the world’s first commercial onshore wind farm to the behemoths designed specifically for offshore, such as the world’s current largest wind turbine with a rated capacity of 18 MW.
The big challenge is that oil and gas floating platforms have been essentially “one-off” facilities. Because of the unique characteristics of each oil field, in terms of production rates, oil and gas characteristics, geographical location, etc., platforms were designed to be optimized for individual needs, and in almost all situations only a single platform was required for a field. This is in stark contrast to floating wind farms where many platforms will be required, all of which can likely be identical, and mass production becomes one of the most important design considerations.
Amongst all the optimism at the conference, I must take exception, however, to one viewpoint that was expressed during one of the “Spotlight on Developers” panel discussions. On the question of how developers should determine the best floating wind concept for their project, the representative from Cerulean Winds felt strongly that this should be left to the EPCI (Engineer, Procure, Construct, and Install) contractor. In fact, he argued that the developer should hand over all aspects of the wind farm development to the contractor, including concept selection, fabrication, installation, financing, and even the first 5 to 10 years of operations and maintenance. Based on experience in the oil and gas industry, putting all development and operation risks on a contractor is only effective if the industry is very mature and the risks are all well known and easily manageable. This is definitely not the situation given the early days of floating wind. Such an approach will most likely result in one of two outcomes: 1) the development cost will be high because the EPCI contractor will factor excessive risk cost into its bid, or 2) the contractor will underestimate the risk and associated cost and the project will fail and/or the contractor will go bankrupt due to lack of funds. Either of those outcomes would be disastrous for the industry.
It will be very interesting to see how all the ideas and concepts and challenges play out over the next several years. Will costs fall to the point where floating wind is cost competitive with other options? Will governments continue to support offshore wind and help remove barriers to developments? Will a handful of floating platform concepts rise to the top and become de facto standards for the industry? Will the infrastructure necessary to support these developments be in place when needed? These are exciting times for the industry, and FWS 2023 did a good job of capturing that excitement.
(Disclaimer: I may be a bit biased here as VLO is a supporter of Our World of Energy and both principles are colleagues, but I do very much like good models, which both VLO and Huisman displayed, and VLO was the only exhibitor looking into VAWTs, which have some unique advantages for floating platforms that should be more widely studied.)